The Natural Bloomington Blog


Southern Indiana's deep woods have evolved into a lush, green mass this time of year. So, as I drove along Tower Ridge Road to the Martin Hollow Trailhead under a brilliant, mid-day sun on Friday, my photographic plan was to keep an eye on the sky, watchful for the visual interplay of canopy, sky and cloud.

The woods had indeed turned a dense shamrock green along the three-mile trail in the Charles C. Deam Wilderness. For the first time this year I picked up trailside sticks to clear spider webs that span the sometimes overgrown path, which begins at the Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower and bears west to Grubb Ridge, crossing Tower Ridge en route. And after what seemed like an eternity of steady rain, the trail itself featured extended stretches of pure muck that required a wide-straddle balancing act to traverse.

My perseverance and skyward gaze paid off, as the day's Photo Album illustrates. But, as is always the case, downed trees and combinations of sun and soil offered up isolated patches where wildflowers thrive on or near the forest floor.


While I should have known better, suffice it say I wasn't 100 percent confident that Saturday's Hoosier Chaper Sierra Club hike I led through the Orange County woods was going to be the extraordinary experience it turned out to be. Not many folks had signed on for the latest Hoosier National Awareness hike. Some canceled. Others got misdirected or caught in I-69 construction / IU graduation traffic. Until Friday evening, weather forecasts ranged from 20-100 percent rain.

No details, but coming off one of my roughest weeks in decades, I knew that hiking through the old-growth Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest and hanging with my friends Andy Mahler and Linda Lee at their Lazy Black Bear homestead was the therapy I needed. But when I walked into the Lost River Market & Deli in downtown Paoli and saw Bill Hayden, who I've known for the same 30 years as Andy and Linda and haven't seen since he move to Clarksville several years ago, I knew I'd started rebounding.

I can't say the outing was the best Sierra Club hike or Natural Bloomington Ecotour yet. That would be like ranking my children. And I have, if you'll recall, led through the Southern Indiana wilds a busload of visually impaired guests, busloads of active adults (f.k.a. seniors), carloads of Chinese students, the Hoosier Supervisor, even a pair of grandparents and visiting granddaughters, etc. But it's up there, for sure. For damn sure.


The retired side of my semi-retired life reascends Thursday afternoon, after I present my semester recap / class farewell talk, the very last in Ernie Pyle Hall on the IU campus. I've spent parts of 25 years learning, guest speaking and teaching in that building. It'll be a bittersweet moment, that's for certain.

So, with my workload already fading -- from here on I'm just critiquing student websites and short videos -- I am at long last turning the bulk of my attention back to my nature work.

Since I began shooting video in January, I've harbored repressed visions of videotaping a sunset over the Hoosier horizon from the Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower. On Saturday night, I headed southeast from Bloomington to release them. Plan B was to capture some late evening light on the Martin Hollow Trail, which tracks west just below the tower.


Any time you feel Southern Indiana's lack of mountains, oceans, ancient forests or major rivers relegates it to second-class status in the cosmos of natural beauty, take a hike on Nebo Ridge. Or, better yet, show someone from a far-off destination that boasts all those natural wonders some of ours. You'll gain perspective.

I had the opportunity to do both in the past week and posted photo albums from each on the Natural Bloomington Photo Album page.


When I interviewed former Hoosier National Forest Supervisor Claude Ferguson back in the mid-1980s, I left with one of the most memorable quotes I ever gathered. The subject was the 1985 U.S. Forest Service plan to clearcut 81 percent of the state’s only national forest. Under that forest-management vision, plots up to 30 acres in size would be routinely stripped bare of all vegetation into the 22nd century.

I sat with Claude on the porch of his Bedford home as an environmental reporter for the Bloomington Herald-Telephone covering the 1985 plan and as a grad student writing my final masters project about it for the IU School of Journalism. Clearcutting, he told me, essentially required little more expertise than drawing lines on a map.

“It makes it easy to go for coffee,” he said. “But it’s not forestry.”


In any given March, Miller Ridge in Brown County is remote, high, relatively dry and, like forestlands across Southern Indiana, displays the first signs of re-awakening woodland life -- greenbriar, lichens and wildflowers, for starters. Towering 300 feet above the Crooked and Panther Creek Valleys, it's also a good workout.

This March, Miller was the perfect place to experiment with my new photo system. I used Saturday's three-hour trek along the Tecumseh Trail on the 900-foot elevation ridge as an opportunity to shoot closeups with my macro lens. The blossoming toothworts, phlox and beauties of spring that spot the warming forest floor, on both the ridge tops and the valley floors, served as the experimental subjects.


Washington County's Cave River Valley is among Southern Indiana's secret natural gems. Situated on a stretch of cave-riddled karst between Mitchell and Salem, this 300-acre State Natural Area includes a 63-acre Dedicated State Nature Preserve that protects  two significant cave environments -- Endless Cave, which has been surveyed at nearly 7,000 feet, and River Cave, which features one of the world's longest straight-cave passages. 

I wrote the book on Southern Indiana natural areas and hadn't heard of Cave River until my friend Gary Morrison invited me on a photo shoot there last Friday. But then, Cave River -- home to three endangered species -- should be kept underground. Endless, a.k.a. Dry Clifty Cave, hosts one of the state's largest concentrations of hibernating, federally endangered Indiana bats. River, a.k.a. Wet Clifty Cave, provides habitat for the state-endangered northern blind cavefish and blind crayfish.


Unpredictable weather forced a change in plans announced last week to hike on Nebo Ridge in southeast Brown County. After 12 hours of fallacious forecasts of cloud breaks, I opted instead to continue my closer-to-home photo exploration of the Deam Wilderness. And after days of nonstop rain, I chose to stay on the high ground, specifically the Terrill Ridge Trail that leads north from the Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower.

The trail follows a ridge top road to the 19th-century Terrill Cemetery and features two wildlife ponds where I knew, at a minimum, I'd find reflections of the sort I wrote about last week. The road is maintained for family access to the cemetery and, while soggy, was still easily traversed. Along the way I encountered a backpacker who told me of another water hole east of the trail on "county line road," a now overgrown roadway that delineates the boundary between Monroe and Brown Counties. I counted off the 400 paces he advised and found a campsite but no water.


Hoosier National Forest - Nebo Ridge TrailNebo Ridge in Southeast Brown County occupies a special place in my creative history. I shot one of my first artistic photos and my very first reflection on a Hoosier National Forest wildlife pond there a little more than 40 years ago. The Indiana Public Interest Research Group (InPIRG) had just proposed the 30,000-acre Nebo Ridge Wilderness Area for inclusion in the National Wilderness System, and a couple friends, my ex Judy and I headed east from Bloomington for a little exploration.

I had no idea where we were, other than Nebo, just down the road a piece from Story. That was as deep as I'd ever been in the Southern Indiana wilds at the time. I vaguely remember a gravel road, a steep climb and a trail along the ridge top to the small water hole. I vividly recall shooting some bare trees reflected on the pond. Four years later, when I typed up my very first serious piece of environmental writing -- on the Hoosier -- I learned the pond was probably built some 40 years prior by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a.k.a. FDR's "tree army." 



The past month has been anything but enjoyable (or creative). I've fought a viral bug that I thought had disappeared eight days ago, before last week's five-mile trek along the Grubb Ridge Trail wore me out physically. By the time Sunday night music rolled around, I was coughing, running a fever and otherwise unable to participate in the weekly activities at Dave's place.

Fortunately, my Honda trunk lid was the only witness to my disagreeable disposition while running unavoidable errands on a cold, gray, blowy Wednesday morning last week. The sun never did show. But an email from IU Press that afternoon saying a copy of A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana awaited me at their front desk served as a mood-altering bolt.


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